Starting Tips for Practice

picture of person practicing speech

Helpful Hints

Items missing from an outline will not magically appear during a speaker’s delivery in front of the audience. For example, if the outline neglected to include a central idea, and the speaker used the outline to practice the speech, then it is likely the central idea will ever get revealed during the speech. Be sure to complete the outline (this means taking into account all speech components outlined in Chapter 6) before beginning to practice.

Above all, avoid the practice of “cramming” when deciding on a practice strategy. While this strategy may work on a history exam when trying to memorize dates and facts at the last minute to regurgitate them before forgetting them, this strategy does not work as well for communicators. Remember, public speaking acts like any other learned skill that individuals develop and refine, like performing a saxophone solo, shooting a free-throw shot, or learning a new language. Practice should begin well in advance of the speech and spread out over time, rather than concentrated all in one or two sessions. Brief yet frequent practice sessions held over a period of time works best.

When beginning to practice, understand the vast, yet subtle difference between memorization and learning. For example, people asked to tell the story of their first kiss, the time they learned to ride a bike, or the first time they flew in an airplane could most likely recall and tell others that story with relative ease. They did not need to memorize these stories or write down lines, study them, and then repeat them until they could recite them perfectly each time. People find these stories easy to tell without much advance preparation because they represent learned experiences. The speaker knows the material; telling the story involves putting the concepts into words. At most, notes for telling these types of stories would consist of a few keywords and phrases to jog the memory and keep it on track.

Memorization, on the other hand, refers to the process of storing and recalling exact phrases and words. Actors use this process to recall exact lines in prewritten scripts, but for a public speaker, whose primary goal consists of having a fluid conversation with an audience, it will not suffice. Audiences, first of all, can easily see through a speaker with a scripted speech. From eye contact to vocal tone, rate, and variety, everything about that speaker’s delivery will seem canned or manufactured, anything but genuine and authentic. Additionally, what would happen if the speaker forgot a line? Potentially, that could cause what some might refer to as a “speech fatality”—an unrecoverable error that causes extreme anxiety, resulting in panic and possibly failure. As opposed to memorized speeches, learned speeches offer speakers a backup plan, because they know the concepts they are trying to convey, so the words they choose to convey those concepts may vary, but the essence of the message remains the same. For that reason, avoid rote memorization at all costs, and instead, get to know the material and use notes to help provide guidance through that material.

When practicing, remember to recite certain phrases differently each time. Not only does this prevent memorization as a result of repeated practice, but it also effectively “trains” speakers to deliver their message in a variety of ways, developing multiple phrases for saying the same thing. That way, if they get stuck trying to remember how they planned on phrasing a certain point, they will have numerous options from which to draw, keeping the speech fluid and conversational.

Remember that, during practice sessions, speakers should practice in the exact same way they intend to present when in front of the audience. This means that, if they plan to stand and move around, they should not practice from a seated position, staring at a computer screen, and going through the lines in their head. They will want to stand up, move around, gesture, and practice saying phrases out loud, projecting their voice just as they will in front of the audience. This practice method trains the body (the delivery vehicle) via muscle memory. In the same way a professional golfer practices hitting a drive hundreds of times to develop and refine the swing, a public speaker needs to train the muscles of the body like the neck so he or she remembers to move the head around the room, effectively maintaining eye contact with the entire room. This also includes the diaphragm, which is needed to expel enough air through the vocal cords to project the voice to the back of the room.

For instance, what would happen if a speaker only practiced from a seated position? That person will likely stand to deliver the message feeling uncomfortable due to the unfamiliar method of delivery, which leads to uncertainty  and generates natural anxiety. In the same way, practicing phrases internally instead of speaking them out loud only teaches a person to remain quiet and reserved.

Lastly, consider conducting at least one practice session as a full-dress rehearsal. The last place speakers want to discover that their heels hurt or that their shirt doesn’t fit quite right is when they are standing in front of an audience and trying to concentrate on delivering the message.

Athletes, musicians, actors, dancers, or other performers who perform their craft in front of spectators often use a valuable technique called positive visualization (also called positive imagery). This technique involves engaging one’s imagination to visualize a positive outcome from the upcoming performance. For example, a basketball player preparing to take a crucial free-throw shot to win the game at the last minute might dribble the ball a few times, then pause and visualize the shot before taking it, imagining the ball going through the air in a perfect arc and sinking through the hoop, touching nothing but the net. Only after that visualization will the player physically take the shot. Public speakers should imagine themselves successfully delivering the speech as close to an ideal reality as possible. One of the worst things a speaker can do prior to the speech is engage in negative self-talk, such as thinking “I’m not ready for this” or “This is going to stink!”

While everyone will have a different “best practice” number of practice sessions to effectively learn a speech, it requires some trial and error to find out what will work best. Some people have the good fortune to possess photographic memories and can recall written information effortlessly, and for them, perhaps one practice session will work fine. Others may end up on the opposite end of that spectrum, requiring 30 or more practice run-throughs before they feel comfortable enough to deliver their speech. Despite most people falling anywhere along this spectrum, many novice public speaking students suggest that the following three practice “sessions” outlined in this chapter provide a recipe for success.


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Messages that Matter: Public Speaking in the Information Age - Third Edition Copyright © 2023 by North Idaho College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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